Hollywood died last week.
No, not that Hollywood, not that Hollywood of a lesser kind–that Hollywood out in La La Land. Rather, it was the real Hollywood, the iconic cherub-cheeked, perpetually smiling man, who cut hair and worked magic over at Murden’s Barber Shop in southwest Atlanta, Ga. for the last forty years.
Even for some of the legions who know him, ‘Charles Allen Lattimore, Sr.’ could be the answer to a trivia question on TV’s Jeopardy quiz show: ‘What is Hollywood’s real name?’
It wasn’t that Hollywood ever went out of his way to conceal his true identity. He wasn’t living off the grid. It’s just that after they become legends, icons are more often referenced by only one name: ‘Michael’, ‘Kobe’, ‘Jordan’, ‘Tiger’. ‘Hollywood’.
There is an unwritten Law of the Universe that dictates that no individual can nickname themselves. Doing so is not only an arrogant act, but also a cosmic faux pas. It risks the wrath of karma. So it comes to pass that a couple of us barber shop regulars deem him ‘Hollywood.’ The nickname just took hold and never let go. This takes all place back in the days when Gerald Ford occupies the White House and the barber formally (or is it formerly?) known as Charles A. Lattimore, Sr. had just begun working at Murden’s. If the reader thinks the moniker, “Hollywood” implies that the ‘name-changers’ were in awe, that we thought him to be larger than life and just knew that he was capable of making magic right before our eyes, well, you’d be right.
Life’s course rarely describes a geometric straight line. And so it was with Lattimore’s. By the time he gets to Murden’s, he’s late of the entertainment business. In a previous life, he’s pursued a career as a professional singer. Until now, barbering was a fall-back, a ‘fail -safe”. In that previous life, he’s cut a couple of R&B records under the stage name, ‘Charles Allen’. He’s even done several stints on the southern Chitlin’ Circuit. He’s been on the same stage with John Edwards before Edwards became front man for The Spinners and he’s shared the stage with Garland Green (“Jealous Kind of Fellow”). Once on a brief tour up North, he’d been on the same bill as Liza in that small wedge of time, when Ms. Minnelli is still trying to prove she’s got star power.
The other barbers, and those of us who have been Murden’s regulars for years, gradually learn of all this as Latimore builds his clientele. We also learn that he sings professionally on the weekends at some of the local clubs, Cisco’s, Marko’s, Crowe’s Nest and others. Taking him up on an invitation, I go over to take in his Oldies but Goodies Act at Cisco’s. Well, Lord have mercy! Charles Allen Lattimore, Sr. can sing! He can really sing! As Otis Williams, the legendary founder of The Temptations once said of the late Ali-Ollie Woodson, Hollywood was “…one singin’ ass brother!”
The next time I’m in Murden’s, I tell him how much we enjoyed his act and ask why he wasn’t still trying to hit the BIG TIME in…well, Hollywood, the one out in La La Land? “Will, he says “I’ve got small kids that need me and I wasn’t getting rich as a singer. It was just time for me to be serious.”
Since those days almost four decades ago, the man who we’re sure could have been a show business headliner has styled and cut what must have been several metric tons of hair from the noggins of thousands of Atlanta men. Those noggins belonged to pro athletes, Little Leaguers, ministers, teachers, assembly line workers, CEO’s, pilots, middle managers, mechanics, and cops. Mainly though, the noggins belonged to just plain folks, like the writer, who’d walked into Murden`s to see the man who worked the third chair.
Hollywood must have styled every kind of hair cut known to man and barber. His playbook included all kinds of fades, high fades, low fades, crew cuts, Afros, Mohawks, and even something known as ‘the Quovadis.’ A few years ago, when some young people embraced that ridiculous fad of demanding hair styles that included pop-art–Cadillacs, Peace signs, corporate logos, and such–cut into their hair, Hollywood adapted. So well he adapted, we considered renaming him ‘Picasso’.
And while he was no doubt an artisan, Lattimore nee Hollywood was most certainly a magician, a maestro even. While you were sitting in his chair, for no extra charge, he’d treat the inside of your head too. More often than not, he’d tell you one of his legendary tall tales about fishing or ‘rasslin’ alligators or scoring touchdowns or tales of ‘Hollywood as a young man.’
At African-American barber shops, tall tales are universally but affectionately known as “lies.” Thing is, Hollywood told his tales and lies with such flair and verisimilitude — (“You know Will, while rasslin’ that gator, I found out an alligator`s tail tastes just like chicken”)– you’d have to catch yourself. For a nanosecond, your brain would suspend belief and you’d actually picture a younger Holly wrestling with a big gator, breaking off it’s great tail and eating it raw! Of course, a nanosecond is all it takes to trigger laughter, and before he could finish this latest ‘great lie’, me, Holly and whoever else was in the barbershop would invariably be laughing so hard it would hurt.
To be sure, laughter can clear your head. At least, it clears mine. It can cure your heart too, even if only temporarily. Hollywood cleared a lot of heads and cured a lot of hearts since those days of Gerald Ford and ‘Whip Inflation Now’. Just between you and me, if there was ounce of truth to those wild tales about gators and bears and wild bulls, I figure Holly whipped those gators by getting them to laugh themselves to death.
Sometimes what a guy needs is not a laugh, but for someone else to listen. If this was what you needed then ol’ Holly was up for that too. No passive listener, he heard you and whatever it was on your mind or on your heart. He made you feel that it was important. Your issue was his issue, your problem, his problem. You sure don’t get that kind of attention anywhere these days, not even from your garden variety church minister. But it was part of Hollywood’s repertoire, part of the Hollywood Effect.
Of late, many of Murden’s regulars knew that Holly had been ill, fighting cancer for the last year or so. Sadly, we’d come to realize that his prospects for beating the thing were dimming. Still we held out hope while he bravely endured the various therapies and treatments that many cancer patients say ravage the body more than the disease itself.
On the next to the last time I saw him, Holly was not his normal, self-effacing, jovial self. He looked tired and worn. I asked him how he was feeling and he says, “Will, just between you and me, I’m tired. I think the chemo is doing me more harm than the cancer itself.” At that moment, I felt as powerless as I’ve ever felt. Like some wild-eyed dreamer, I think to myself: “Go away cancer, please leave my friend–our great friend–alone.”
When I think about that moment all these days later, I can only guess he must have seen sadness in my eyes and Holly quickly changes the subject. Then he embarks on a wild “off the wall” story about his latest fishing exploits. I’ve heard him tell this same lie perhaps a million and one times, but just like the million other times, the story and his delivery of it makes me laugh so hard I can hardly breathe. I’m laughing so hard there are tears streaming down my face. I can hardly see. Holly’s laughing too, but not nearly as much as I am. After both of us, catch our breath, he proceeds to cut away at my recent wooly growth as we continue to cheer each other up by telling funny stories and great bald-face lies at the expense of our mutual superfriend, Ed Martin, the man who still runs Murden’s.That was Hollywood’s way. Whether you were his customer, his friend, or both, he always showed more concern about how you were feeling in the moment than how he was feeling. Even when he wasn’t feeling or doing so great himself, he did something about your sorrow, your mood.
A few scant weeks later, he is gone. The freakin’ damn cancer had run what was to be its inevitable course. And while the news was not totally unexpected, when Ed calls to tell me it might as well have been a kick in the head, a punch to the heart.
Successful craftsmen exceed expectations. So do great friends. Whether Hollywood was cutting hair, regaling us with one of his ridiculous and famous tall tales or showering us with his friendship, care and loyalty, he always delivered more than he ever got in return.
Many of Holly’s clients, like the writer, are Baby Boomers. Male Boomers are loathe to let anyone see us cry or grieve. It just ain’t our style. We weren’t raised that way. The truth though is that when the news came the other day, more than a few of the many, many ‘Friends of Hollywood’ shed a private tear at our loss. I did. Then, like the other Murden’s ‘regs’, I remembered some of the stories, all of the laughter, all the care, all the consideration that he’d shown us over the years. I laughed a little, sad no more…and thankful he’d been my friend. Hollywood had worked his magic –the Hollywood effect– once again.
EPILOG: Two days ago, we celebrated the life of Charles Allen Lattimore, Sr. It was Standing Room Only at a chapel over in Atlanta’s West End. A packed house like you’ve never seen except maybe on an Easter Sunday morning at a Southern Baptist church or a Saturday night at ‘the club’ had gathered to pay homage. (Holly surely must’ve been barber to the Fire Marshall.) There were messages and proclamations of honor by the Atlanta Mayor’s Office, the Atlanta Board of Education, and even the Georgia Legislature. (Fancy that!)
There were no tears. There was happy music and maybe even a little dancing. Ed Martin told us all funny Hollywood stories and the rest of us laughed …and laughed …and laughed.
It was just the way Holly would’ve wanted.